The Arctic is shaping up to be one of the most strategically important regions in the 21st century. However, the United States has fallen far behind in building the specialized ships necessary to traverse the region’s treacherous waters.
On June 10, Russia launched its first new military icebreaker in half a century. The Ilya Muromets, a diesel icebreaker displacing 6,000 tons, will now begin supporting Russian naval operations in the Arctic.
Just days later, the Ilya Muromets’ launch was upstaged when Russia floated the largest icebreaker in history. The nuclear-powered Arktika displaces 33,500 tons and is the first of three planned hulls.
Russia even plans on adding two icebreaking patrol ships armed with cruise missiles by 2020.
While Russia has been steadfastly building its Arctic capabilities, the U.S. nearly lost its only heavy polar icebreaker on an Antarctica deployment. Only quick thinking and tireless effort by Coast Guard personnel averted a failure that would have stranded the aging Polar Star near Antarctica.
This is emblematic of the disparity between Russian and U.S. capabilities in the strategically important Arctic. Russia has launched as many icebreakers in June as the U.S. Coast Guard has launched in the past 40 years. With the Arktika and the Ilya Muromets, the Russian government now possesses 24 icebreakers. Nineteen more are operated by Russian companies. The U.S. sails two.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft acknowledged, “We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now” in the Arctic.
To make matters worse, the Polar Star just celebrated its 40th birthday and is now operating far beyond its intended lifespan. It is set to be decommissioned in 2022 with no replacement for at least several years. That would leave the Coast Guard with only one active icebreaker, the Healy, which cannot operate in the Arctic during the colder months.
Thankfully, the U.S. government is beginning to take this gap seriously. The Coast Guard finally requested a sizeable amount of funding for the icebreaker program this year after President Barack Obama made it a personal priority in his September 2015 trip to the U.S. Arctic. The Senate recently added $1 billion for the program to the 2017 defense appropriations bill, though this legislation is still being considered by Congress.
Even if the Coast Guard receives this robust funding, it is only the first step in rebuilding its Arctic capabilities. The service has held that it needs three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers to fulfill all its mission requirements. Zukunft’s predecessor and current Department of State special representative for the Arctic, Adm. Robert J. Papp, argued earlier this year that the U.S. might even require eight icebreakers.
There are actions the government can take to accelerate this revitalization. First, the Coast Guard should consider procuring foreign-built icebreakers. As these foreign companies are already producing the ships, they would be able to build them for the Coast Guard more quickly. They could also be significantly less expensive.
Congress can also work with the Coast Guard to facilitate more efficient business practices, such as multiyear procurement and block buy purchases. The Congressional Research Service stated in a recent hearing that the latter could save upward of $100 million to $200 million per icebreaker if two were procured at once.
Finally, the government should increase the Coast Guard’s total acquisition budget. The service has long held that it requires a minimum of $1.5 billion, and possibly as much as $2.5 billion, annually to fulfill its fleet needs. Though the new heavy polar icebreaker might be appropriated this year through the Department of Defense budget, the Coast Guard cannot rely on outside support for its Arctic and other needs each year.
Regardless of present congressional action, the U.S. continues to fall behind in meeting its own Arctic requirements, while Russia continues to expand its influence in the region. If Congress and the executive branch do not act quickly to reverse the current trends, then the U.S. is partially forfeiting the opportunity to be a key player in one of the most strategic regions of the 21st century.